For many people, beer has been used as fuel for drunken adventures--or misadventures, as the case may be. However, scientists have found that this type of alcoholic beverage can be used for another type of fuel altogether—as an alternative to diesel or gasoline.
It turns out that the alcohol in drinks like beer is exactly the same as ethanol, which already is being used as an alternative fuel in gasoline in the United States, according to researchers at the University of Bristol. And the process of converting this ethanol to butanol holds keys to creating a more standard industrial process for developing biofuel, they said.
The researchers from the university’s School of Chemistry have been working for years to develop technology to convert ethanol into butanol, which is seen as a better alternative to bioethanol as a more eco-friendly alternative to gasoline.
Ethanol has drawbacks as a fuel source—it mixes too easily with water, can be fairly corrosive to engines, and has low-energy density—so scientists have eyed butanol to replace it in alternative fuels. Butanol, however, is difficult to make from sustainable sources—which is where beer comes into the picture, said Duncan Wass, a professor at the University of Bristol who led the research.
“Alcoholic drinks are an ideal model for industrial ethanol fermentation broths--ethanol for fuel is essentially made using a brewing process,” he explained. "If our technology works with alcoholic drinks--especially beer, which is the best model--then it shows it has the potential to be scaled up to make butanol as a petrol replacement on an industrial scale."
The team’s work was more a model for how to scale up the transformation of ethanol to butanol for industrial applications rather than a real proof-of-concept for using beer as fuel, Wass said. "We wouldn’t actually want to use beer on an industrial scale and compete with potential food crops,” he said.
Chemists at the University of Bristol have found a way to convert the ethanol in beer into butanol, another type of alternative fuel that holds promise to replace fossil fuels. Researchers said their work can be used for a model to replicate this process on an industrial scale. (Source: University of Bristol)
Researchers describe in a paper published in the journal Catalysis Science and Technology how their work’s key finding is that their catalysts will successfully convert the ethanol from beer into butanol.
This demonstrates “ways to obtain ethanol for fuel from fermentation that produces something that chemically is very much like beer,” Wass said, providing an excellent template for using a similar process to produce biofuel. “Beer is an excellent, readily available model to test our technology,” he said.
The approach also is similar to existing petrochemical processes, making it quite easily adaptable and bringing researchers “one step closer to reality” to the right mixture of chemicals to create new biofuels based on butanol on an industrial scale, Wass said.
Researchers plan to continue their work to understand what makes their catalysts so successful to achieve the potential for scaling up their application, he added.
Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years.